Tuesday, April 15, 2003

War, Sex, Spiders, Singing, and the Culkin Spawn

Submitted by Melinda Murphy

Well, the annual Hollywood self-congratulation convention is over and, aside from Michael Moore’s passionate rant, the Oscars were duller than usual. No terrorist attacks on “America’s royalty.” Who cares whether Joan Rivers gets a whiff of sarin gas anyway?

A movie adaptation of a dated Broadway musical, Chicago, rolled off with most of the little gold-plated men. And a long-suspected child rapist, who made yet another movie about the Holocaust, scored brownie points with the decrepit white men who run the Biz.

This was another year when filmmakers seemed torn between playing it safe and some sense of originality. Because they are so scatter-shot across the crap-o-meter dial, I left a lot out. I haven’t seen several of the blockbusters. Here’s my take, roughly in order of quality but mostly just in order of what I had to say about them.

One-Hour Photo: Robin Williams finally let his wife stop picking his roles for him and it shows. Along with Insomnia, this was his ode to weirdos. ER Honcho, and one-time WGA president, John Wells exec-produced. Williams played a tight-lipped, terribly dysfunctional loner. Still, there’s something a bit art school about this; maybe it’s the terrifying lighting in the Wal-Martesque scenes.

Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers: Swashing, buckling, and then more swashing! Gollum is the creepiest CGI ever. Repetitious beautiful shots of New Zealand had me asking if Peter Jackson is working for the tourism commission? I think so. And then giant talking trees beat Saruman to a pulp! I’m holding out for the Treebeard coffee mugs.

Possession: A great romantic drama from the unlikeliest director, Neil LaBute. Two different couples from two different eras struggle to love one another within a sub-plot about historical letters and an attempt to steal them. Aaron Eckhart is an affable grad student, Jeremy Northam is typically intense as a fictional Victorian poet, and Jennifer Ehle is his fiery and sensuous lover. Gwyneth Paltrow is...Christ, why do people keep making movies with HER in them? How long before a London bus doing sixty miles per hour takes out this whiney anorexic?

About A Boy: Damn funny. Hugh Grant found a part to follow up his demonic turn in Bridget Jones’ Diary and he’s equally hilarious in this. Toni Collette is a screamingly funny London hippie who feeds her boy “Ancient Grains” cereal, dresses him in dorky organic wool and then tells him, “You’re not a sheep.” I laughed out loud the first time Grant’s character zeros in on the flier for SPAT, Single Parents Alone Together.

Igby Goes Down: I liked this! It’s about The Rich, but give it a chance. Get past the polo shirts and blazers and it’s Susan Sarandon being wonderfully evil. Ryan Phillippe does his best I’m-bored-now accent and that Caulkin kid does all right. I even liked Amanda Peet, another model-turned-actress, except she can actually emote, so I can’t really bag on her except to say anorexics really should keep their clothes on in movies. The ending is good! Give it a spin on the DVD player.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: He’s back and he’s driving without a learner’s permit! This one is an improvement; we aren’t dragged through the long list of who’s who. However, the elf engaging in a sadomasochism kind of freaked me out. If a CGI-generated character ever needed a Valium, it’s that one. He makes Gollum look calm. Oh, and there’s S-P-I-D-E-R-S!

The Hours: Heavy-handed chamber music, Nicole Kidman dons a fake nose, Julianne Moore smiles in a skeletal, grimacing way and Meryl Steep enters stage left. Ed Harris is a tortured writer/artist again. But what zapped me was the little kid, Jack Rovello. The boy who acts opposite Moore in the 1950’s scenes was mesmerizing. I haven’t seen a pre-teen that intent on industry recognition since Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense.

Insomnia: Another gutsy, mainstream-pretending-to-be-indie flick from the man who brought us Memento. Al Pacino had me twitching in a way he hasn’t since Dog Day Afternoon. Robin William’s voice drones away on the voiceover, driving Pacino and the audience nuts.

Y tu Mama Tabien (And Your Mother Too): Funnily enough, the male critics who gushed about Mulholland Drive last year mightily dissed this Mexican art house flick. Gael Bernal and Diego Luna are flaky, rich Mexican teens who set off on a road trip to impress their companion, a stunning older woman from Spain, who’s harboring several painful secrets. Of course, the MPAA had no problem with the almost pornographic Mulholland Drive (hot lesbian action!) but they put the smack down on this (possible man-on-man action) and the version I saw was severely edited. Ironically, it just took Best Foreign Language Film at the BAFTAs.

Orange County: Sooo cute. I don’t care if this was a send up of all the “inherited” talent in Hollywood. There’s good comedic delivery and even better lines, like “Hello coyote ugly!” and “If it weren’t for your step-father, we’d be living in a condo eating processed cold cuts!”

The Salton Sea: This missed broader distribution, which is too bad given the appalling crystal-meth boom sweeping America. Val Kilmer is appealing as a broken man on a revenge crusade and his sidekick, Peter Sarsgaard, is amazing as the most naive junkie ever. ER’s Eric LaSalle produced and the movie has a wide ethnic cast, which is ironic given the long-time penchant for meth among bikers and skinheads (it was Hitler’s drug of choice). Vivid imagery and a little plot twist makes this a good video rental.

Rabbit-Proof Fence: Australia does a nice send up of the true story of three girls who escape an Aboriginal boarding school in 1931 and walk 1,500 miles through the outback to find their mother. The school is run by a racist creep, Kenneth Branagh, who wants to breed the black out of the Abo kids, a la the U.S. and Canada’s domesticating of the American Indian. Just like Indian kids, they’re beaten if they speak their own language and when they’re trained, they’re farmed out to white families as domestic help. What’s more amazing is, Aborigines didn’t even have the right to vote in Australia until just a few decades ago.

Minority Report: Stephen Spielberg FINALLY gets dirty. Some scenes in this pricey, slow-to-finish-production are seedy and unsavory - and that’s good! I was beginning to think the Peter Pan of Cinema didn’t know what sex was.

The Bourne Identity: Matt Damon dices, slices, and - ouch! - stabs people with ballpoint pens. Franke Potente does well as his sort-of romantic interest but doesn’t scream enough when they’re driving the Euro-beatermobile through France on one wheel and no brakes. Plenty of white-knuckle fun.

Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys: That Caulkin kid wrestles with puberty and, in this case, a nun played by Jody Foster who he perceives as Satan. Literally. Large chunks of the film are played out Saturday cartoon style as a comic book story. It’s a little disjointed but has a nice indie feel.

Enigma: (2001 but came here in 2002) A very Brit production, complete with backing from Mick Jagger, about England’s race to crack Nazi Germany’s enigma code. Loosely based on real events. Dougray Scott decided that math geek meant he shouldn’t wash his hair and then stare slack-jawed into space a lot. Uber model Saffron Burrows does a brief turn as an amorous femme fatale and Kate Winslet (who was preggers at the time) is carefully dressed down to look ugly next to statuesque Burrows. But cool Jeremy Northam’s weasely secret agent man is the only real reason to watch this made-by-a-rock-star film.

Signs: M. Night Shyamalan follows up Unbreakable and trades in Bruce Willis for Mel Gibson as a lapsed minister who lives on a Pennsylvania farm when this War of the Worlds scenario unfolds. Gibson’s minister is the ONLY person in all of America who doesn’t own a gun! Shyamalan spends a lot of time building his characters and letting them drive the bus, which works, especially in the scene where Joaquin Pheonix is watching TV. There’s some laughs too, with the kids, including another Caulkin spawn.

Blue Crush: A girls-have-fun-too flick with a tired old plot, but the actors, the setting, and the photography almost make you forget you know exactly how it will end. Michelle Rodriguez and company make the most of bikini bathing suits, gettin’ loaded and hangin’ with the howlies. I like this because I have a thing for surfer movies. There’s something far more mystical about surfing versus mountain climbing or pogoing off a cliff on a mountain bike. Any boy can do that.

Full Frontal: Over-blown indie look-alike by Soderbergh. A vanity project where he dazzled us with namedropping. Julia Roberts acts confused, and so was I. Blair Underwood is...well, uh...he’s no Denzel. He’s certainly no Jeffrey Wright, either. He’s pretty but, well...David Hyde Pierce is a writer who’s marriage is floundering. He doesn’t pull a Whiney Niles thanks to hashish brownies. David Duchovny is ultra-sleazy as a movie exec who misses his own party for unsavory reasons. I’m wondering if Duchovny and Soderbergh didn’t create this character deliberately after the gossip about Duchovny and massage parlors while he was still in Vancouver waving flashlights around for Chris Carter?

The Pianist: I haven’t seen this and here’s why - Roman Polanski. I just don’t like him and I like his writing and filmmaking even less. Remember Johnny Depp and The Ninth Gate? How about Tess? Rosemary’s Baby? “Hail Satan! Hail Satan!” Please! I know he co-wrote Chinatown but I’m still not impressed, maybe because of what he allegedly did to a pre-teen all those years ago. Once again Hollywood has proven that it is still run by very old, white Jewish men who reward subject matter first, quality second. The Holocaust was a terrible tragedy and one of the cruelest periods in Western history. Society will never be the same, but how many times can you shove extras into bread ovens and not have it become trite?

Lovely & Amazing: Catherine Keener is a screwed-up daughter in a family of screwed-up women who are, really, like everybody else. They’re obsessed with their weight, so much so that the matriarch, British actress Brenda Blethyn, gets liposuction. She ends up in the hospital in critical condition. Dermot Mulroney is the narcissistic, befuddled Hollywood actor who beds one of the dysfunctionals. Turns out, he’s just as concerned about his physical appearance as she is. Blethyn’s matriarch has an adopted daughter. The daughter is African-American and obese. The film asks hard questions about the objectification of women, stereotypes, race, age, etc. and tries to answer some of them. Guys will hate this flick.

Unfaithful: One of my favorite actresses, Diane Lane, who has certainly aged better than me (we’re both 37), has sex with a dangerous Frenchie on the stairs, in a public toilet, on a table, under a table...let’s see...anyhow, yoga can help anyone except Richard Gere’s character. But I did like the ending.

Reign of Fire: The British Isles get eaten by dragons. Matthew McConaughey must save everyone because he’s the ‘Merikun; thereby, tougher and more macho. The lizards are great! The plot - what plot? I heard two guys wrote this as a spec script submission. Get crackin’ on those soulless, plotless action-packed stories.

The Rules of Attraction: In the beginning, Shannyn Sossamon’s character gets viciously date raped...or does she? James Van Der Beek is a misunderstood, impoverished drug dealer. Ian Somerhalder is the hot gay guy who’s moping after Van Der Beek. Kip Pardue is unconvincing as a recently-returned-from-fucking-everything-in-Europe ex-boyfriend. Why would anyone line up to fuck Pardue? He looks like he asks customers if they want fries with that order. Russell Sams is underused and a standout as Dick, Somerhalder’s occasional lover. Sams acts drunk and obnoxious better than anybody else and drunk and obnoxious is the main theme! Roger Ebert was gushing on his television show that “no college boys on Earth would ignore half-naked coeds making out in a lesbian fashion.” Obviously, this is going on Ebert’s top shelf right next to Mulholland Drive. In fact, there’s so many stark nekid girlies in this, I’m guessing Avary went to a strip club and asked everybody to come be in his movie. I have faith most real coeds aren’t this stupid despite what slimy creep Brett Easton Ellis pens.

Kissing Jessica Stein: All aboard the silly Greed Train for $elling Lesbian $tereotypes to $traight Men! Our conductor is Howard Stern.

The Ring: I don’t know what Jane Alexander or Brian Cox were doing in this - making a house payment? Naomi Watts manages to keep some of her clothes on. Renting videos can kill you and the “new” formula for horror flicks is to flash gross and unsettling images. Here’s the plot: BLOOD, SCARY FACE, BUGS!

We Were Soldiers: God help us, writer/filmmaker Randall Wallace is at it again. Mel Gibson gives one of his sloppiest performances as a stalwart commando who leads his “boys” into Vietnam. Since HBO hit the ball out of the park with Band of Brothers, these war pictures are just pathetic. And I’m a girl who likes war movies! Just buy Band of Brothers on DVD.

Black Hawk Down: Ridley Scott is Bruckheimer’s new bitch?! The man who made Alien and Thelma and Louise, spews out a celluloid mess about heat, dust, and bad lighting. See above.

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